Institute of Fisheries Ecology

Herwigstraße 31
27572 Bremerhaven
Phone: + 49 471 94460 201
Fax: + 49 471 94460 199

Studies in the spawning area of the European eel


 (c) Lasse Marohn

Studies on the reproductive biology of the European Eel in the central Sargasso Sea

The European eel is endangered. There are still large gaps in our knowledge about its reproductive biology. A better understanding of the processes in the spawning area is necessary to develop a better basis for the protection and sustainable management of the species.

Background and Objective

The life cycle of the eel is complex and essentially characterized by long migrations both in the ocean and in inland and coastal waters. The recruitment of glass eels has declined throughout the distribution area for more than three decades and the yellow and silver eel stocks have also decreased. Since about 15 years, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea has stated that the eel stock is "outside safe biological limits". The clarification of the causes of the population decline is crucial for successful establishment of protective measures. However, this will only be possible if the complex life cycle is known and understood. However, there are still large gaps in our knowledge on the oceanic life stages and on the processes in the spawning area. Therefore, we study distribution and abundance of early developmental stages of the European eel in the central Sargasso Sea and we try to better localize the spawning area. By establishing a time series, the investigations will allow conclusions about the long-term effects of changing hydrographic conditions but also about the effects of management measures on distribution, abundance and survival of eel larvae in the Sargasso Sea. So far, glass eel recruitment at the European coast is the only measure for eel recruitment. However, from these data it cannot be deduced whether a) predominantly continental factors and hence reduced numbers of spawners are responsible for the decline in the eel population, or whether b) mortality of larvae during the two to three-year oceanic migration from the spawning area to the coasts has changed due to climatic factors. For this reason, surveys in the spawning area are essential. In addition, the abundance and distribution of leptocephalus larvae of other species is examined to obtain information on possible variation of the larvae community in the Sargasso Sea. The investigations in the spawning area of the eel contribute to a better understanding of the biology of the early larval stages. E. g., gut content studies on early-stage leptocephalus larvae could provide very valuable insights into food composition of the early developmental stages, which may also be highly relevant for the artificial reproduction of eel. The feeding of the youngest eel larvae so far is the core problem in the controlled breeding. Therefore, eel aquaculture is so far exclusively based on wild caught glass eels.


In the central Sargasso Sea (approximately in a range of about 70°W to 49°W and 24°N to 31°N) we investigate distribution and abundance of early developmental stages of the European eel (Anguilla anguilla). The studies allow us conclusions about the long-term effects of changing hydrographic conditions on distribution, abundance and survival of eel larvae in the Sargasso Sea. In the medium term, the data series will provide necessary information for a successful management of this endangered species. In addition, we study the abundance and distribution of leptocephalus larvae of other species to obtain information on the possible variation of the larval community in the Sargasso Sea. Together with the oceanographic data collected, the investigations of the ichthyoplankton with Isaac-Kidd Mid-Water Trawl (IKMT) will be used to better localize the spawning area of the eel and to characterize the relevant abiotic factors in the spawning area. The research in the Sargasso Sea was and will be conducted in cooperation with national and international partners.

Preliminary Results

In the years 2011 and 2014 we conducted research cruises in the central Sargasso Sea. Our results show that in 2011 compared to previous studies (1983, 1985), the proportion of larvae of the European (A. anguilla) and American eel (A. rostrata) in the entire leptocephalus community has decreased significantly. Although the exact causes of the decline in larval densities could not be determined in detail, our results can be seen as an indication that either fewer spawning fish reach the Sargasso Sea or that the survival of the youngest larval stages has decreased. The results so far give no indication that the survival rates have decreased during the migration from the spawning ground to the continental coasts.

In the frame of the research cruise we also investigated the behaviour of silver eels in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Sargasso Sea using archival pop-up satellite transmitters. This study for the first time provided data on the behaviour of eels in the spawning area for a period of up to three months. We documented a very stable pattern of diel vertical movements with amplitudes of about 300 meters and maximum diving depths of over 1000 meters. In the Sargasso Sea the eels used greater depths than in the more north-eastern areas of the Atlantic Ocean.


Involved Thünen-Partners


Permanent task 2.2011 - 12.2020

More Information

Projekt type:
Project status: ongoing


Results 1 - 5 of 10

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  1. Westerberg H, Miller MJ, Wysujack K, Marohn L, Freese M, Pohlmann J-D, Watanabe S, Tsukamoto K, Hanel R (2018) Larval abundance across the European eel spawning area: An analysis of recent and historic data. Fish Fisheries 19(5):890-902, DOI:10.1111/faf.12298
  2. Westerberg H, Pacariz S, Marohn L, Fagerström V, Wysujack K, Miller MJ, Freese M, Pohlmann J-D, Hanel R (2018) Modeling the drift of European (Anguilla anguilla) and American (Anguilla rostrata) eel larvae during the year of spawning. Can J Fish Aquat Sci 75(2):224-234, DOI:10.1139/cjfas-2016-0256
  3. Poulsen JY, Miller MJ, Sado T, Hanel R, Tsukamoto K, Miya M (2018) Resolving deep-sea pelagic saccopharyngiform eel mysteries: Identification of Neocyema and Monognathidae leptocephali and establishment of a new fish family "Neocyematidae" based on larvae, adults and mitogenomic gene orders. PLoS One 13(7):e0199982, DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0199982
    pdf document (limited accessibility) 14678 kb
  4. Lischka A, Piatkowski U, Hanel R (2017) Cephalopods of the Sargasso Sea: distribution patterns in relation to oceanography. Mar Biodiv 47(3):685-697, DOI:10.1007/s12526-016-0629-4
  5. Kuroki M, Marohn L, Wysujack K, Miller MJ, Tsukamoto K, Hanel R (2017) Hatching time and larval growth of Atlantic eels in the Sargasso Sea. Mar Biol 164:118, DOI:10.1007/s00227-017-3150-9

Results 1 - 5 of 10

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